First published in the New Yorker in 1969 and later adapted into an acclaimed film starring Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn, Casualties of War is the shocking true story of the abduction, rape, and murder of a young Vietnamese woman by US soldiers.
Before setting out on a five-day reconnaissance mission in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, Sergeant Tony Meserve told the four men under his command that their first objective would be to kidnap a girl and bring her along “for the morale of the squad.” At the end of the mission, Meserve said, they would kill their victim and dispose of the body to avoid prosecution for abduction and rape—capital crimes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Private First Class Sven Eriksson was the only member of the patrol who refused to participate in the atrocity. Haunted by his inability to save the young woman’s life, he vowed to see Meserve and the others convicted of their crimes. Faced with the cynical indifference of his commanding officers and outright hostility from his fellow infantrymen, Eriksson had the tenacity to persevere. He went on to serve as the government’s chief witness in four courts-martial related to the infamous Incident on Hill 192.
A masterpiece of contemporary journalism, Casualties of War is a clear-eyed, powerfully affecting portrait of the horrors of warfare and the true meaning of courage.
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Casualties of War
By Daniel Lang
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Like their predecessors in all wars, American veterans of the Vietnamese campaign who are coming home to civilian life have their heads filled with memories that may last the rest of their days, for, no matter how far from the front a man may have spent his time as a soldier, he will remember it as a special time, when, fleetingly, his daily existence appeared to approach the heroic. Former Private First Class Sven Eriksson—as I shall call him, since to use his actual name might add to the danger he may be in—has also come back with his memories, but he has no idea what the future will do to them. Honorably discharged in April, 1968, this new war veteran, who is twenty-four and comes from a small farming community in northwestern Minnesota, isn't even sure that he would care to hold on to his recollections, if it were possible for him to control his memory. Naturally, Eriksson's experiences in Vietnam were varied, and many of them impressed themselves vividly on his mind. Just seeing an Asian country, for instance, was an adventure, Eriksson says, its landscape so different from the frozen plains of his corner of Minnesota; he had never before splashed through paddy fields, he told me, or stood blinking in the sudden sunlessness of lush, entangled jungle, or wandered uncertainly through imprisoning fields of towering elephant grass. An infantryman, Eriksson saw a fair amount of action, so, if he chose, he could reminisce about strong points he helped take and fire fights in which he was pinned down, and one ambush, in particular, in which half his unit was wounded. But, as Eriksson unhesitatingly acknowledges, the fact is that when he thinks of his tour of duty in Vietnam it is always a single image that comes to his mind. The image is that of a Vietnamese peasant girl, two or three years younger than he was, whom he met, so to speak, on November 18, 1966, in a remote hamlet in the Central Highlands, a few miles west of the South China Sea. Eriksson and four other enlisted men were then on a reconnaissance patrol in the vicinity of the girl's home. Eriksson considers himself hazy about the girl's looks. He does remember, though, that she had a prominent gold tooth, and that her eyes, which were dark brown, could be particularly expressive. He also remembers that she was wearing dusty earrings made of bluish glass; he noticed the trinkets because they gave off a dull glint one bright afternoon when he was assigned to stand guard over her. Like most rural women, she was dressed in loose-fitting black pajamas. They obscured her figure, Eriksson says, but he has the impression that she was slender and slight, and was perhaps five feet two or three inches tall. For as long as she lived, Eriksson did not know her name. He learned it, eventually, when the girl's sister identified her at court-martial proceedings—proceedings that Eriksson himself instigated and in which he served as the government's chief witness. The girl's name—her actual name—was Phan Thi Mao. Eriksson never exchanged a word with her; neither spoke the other's language. He knew Mao for slightly more than twenty-four hours. They were her last. The four soldiers with whom he was on patrol raped and killed her, abandoning her body in mountain brush. One of the soldiers stabbed her three times, and when defense counsel challenged Eriksson at the court-martial proceedings to describe the sound that the stabbings made, he testified, "Well, I've shot deer and I've gutted deer. It was just like when you stick a deer with a knife—sort of a thud—or something like this, sir."
Eriksson talked with me at his home in (I shall say) Minneapolis, where, since leaving the Army, he has been earning his living as a cabinetmaker at a local department store. He and his wife, Kirsten, have a neat, modest apartment of three rooms, its walls decorated with paintings by Mrs. Eriksson, a Sunday artist, who was present while we talked; she is twenty-three and is employed as a receptionist in an insurance office. The two have no children. They were married four years ago, shortly after Eriksson was drafted. They had known each other since childhood, their fathers having been neighboring farmers, who both had difficulty making ends meet. This was true of many farmers in the area, Mrs. Eriksson told me, adding that most of its inhabitants were of Scandinavian background. "It's a part of the country where we pride ourselves on not being demonstrative," she said. A small, pretty blonde with an alert, intelligent manner, she offered me coffee and cake the instant I set foot in the apartment. She was pleased, she told me, that I had asked to hear about the episode involving Mao. She herself had thus far been the only person with whom her husband had discussed it since returning from Vietnam, and even with her he had not gone into much detail. "It'll do him good to talk to someone else," she said, her tone lively and teasing. Sitting by himself on a sofa, Eriksson smiled somewhat ruefully, a deep dimple forming in one cheek. He is a short man of fair complexion, blond and blue- eyed, and he is not voluble. In the hours we spent together, there were intervals that may have lasted as long as a minute when he sat silent, a brooding expression on his face, before resuming his account. At the start, he spoke laconically, but gradually his natural reticence thawed out, and there were times—generally after one of his silences—when he produced such a burst of talk that it seemed to cost him an effort to bring it to a halt.
At the very outset, Eriksson told me that the last thing he wished to do was discuss Mao's murder in any legalistic vein. It was certainly possible to do so, as I knew for myself from having read the court record of the trials he had brought about: seven bulky volumes in the offices of the Clerk of Courts, U. S. Army Judiciary, in Falls Church, Virginia, which included Eriksson's testimony against the members of the patrol; their convictions and appeals; interminable correspondence between judges and opposing counsel; and depositions concerning the character of individual defendants. Having appeared as a witness before four tribunals in Vietnam, Eriksson told me, he had had his fill of the judicial process—of the dogged grillings by lawyers and the repeated strictures of judges insisting on precise answers to questions that were often vague. As far as he was concerned, Eriksson said, it had all seemed a morass of cleverness, but then, he conceded, he may well have entered the military courtroom in the Central Highlands, where the four trials were held, with unwarranted expectations, for it had been his hope that the trials would help him unravel his reactions to Mao's fate. Unreasonably, he granted, he had come into court with the idea that he and the others on hand would wonder aloud, in a kind of corporate searching, how it was possible for the young girl to meet the end she did. He had imagined that he would be able to ask how it was that he alone of the patrol had come to act as he had. He had wanted to tell of the way the episode with Mao had affected him, and why it was that he had felt impelled to report the others—four young Americans like him, each dependent on the others for survival deep in enemy territory. He had wanted to unburden himself of his doubts about whether he had done all he might have done for Mao in her travail—doubts that gnaw at him to this day. With me, he said, he trusted he would be able to go into these matters freely, but he had early discovered that in a court of law they were of little interest.
Launching into his unlegalistic account, Eriksson told me that it seemed clear to him in retrospect that he should have been prepared for Mao's death. It had been preceded by any number of similar occurrences. In one form or another, he said, they took place almost daily, but he was slow, or reluctant, to perceive that they were as much a part of the war as shells and targets were. Eriksson now believes he should have foreseen that sooner or later one of these incidents was bound to strike him with special, climactic force. He had scarcely landed in Vietnam, in October, 1966, when he was made aware of these occurrences, each of them apparently impulsive and unrelated to military strategy. He told me that beatings were common—random, routine kicks and cuffings that he saw G.I.s administer to the Vietnamese. Occasionally, official orders were used for justifying gratuitous acts of violence. Thus, early in his tour of duty, Eriksson recalled, G.I.s in his unit were empowered to shoot any Vietnamese violating a 7 P.M. curfew, but in practice it was largely a matter of individual discretion whether a soldier chose to fire at a stray Vietnamese hurrying home a few minutes late to his hootch—the American term for the mud-and-bamboo huts in which most natives lived. Similarly, it was permissible to shoot at any Vietnamese seen running, but, as Eriksson put it, "the line between walking and running could be very thin." The day after the one on which his squad was ambushed and half its members were wounded, several enemy prisoners were taken, and, in retaliation, two were summarily killed, "to serve as an example." A corporal who was still enraged over the ambush tried to strangle another of the prisoners; he had knotted a poncho, nooselike, around the captive's neck and was tightening it when a merciful lieutenant commanded him to desist.
Needless to say, Eriksson continued, the kind of behavior he was describing was by no means limited to Americans. The enemy did the same thing, and much of the evidence for this came from the Vietnamese themselves. They constantly reported rapes and kidnappings by the Vietcong; in fact, the Vietcong committed these crimes so indiscriminately that the victims were sometimes their own sympathizers. On one occasion that he knew of, Eriksson said, American troops, attracted by the familiar odor of decomposing bodies, had found a pit piled high with Vietnamese men and women who had been machine-gunned by the V.C. But, as Eriksson pointed out, he could not give me many such firsthand accounts of V.C. depredations. Necessarily, he said, he was in a position to speak only of the behavior of American soldiers, since they were the people he fought and lived with.
Ending the first of his brooding silences, Eriksson said, "From one day to the next, you could see for yourself changes coming over guys on our side—decent fellows, who wouldn't dream of calling an Oriental a 'gook' or a 'slopehead' back home. But they were halfway around the world now, in a strange country, where they couldn't tell who was their friend and who wasn't. Day after day, out on patrol, we'd come to a narrow dirt path leading through some shabby village, and the elders would welcome us and the children come running with smiles on their faces, waiting for the candy we'd give them. But at the other end of the path, just as we were leaving the village behind, the enemy would open up on us, and there was bitterness among us that the villagers hadn't given us warning. All that many of us could think at such times was that we were fools to be ready to die for people who defecated in public, whose food was dirtier than anything in our garbage cans back home. Thinking like that—well, as I say, it could change some fellows. It could keep them from believing that life was so valuable—anyone's life, I mean, even their own. I'm not saying that every fellow who roughed up a civilian liked himself for it—not that he'd admit in so many words that he didn't. But you could tell. Out of the blue, without being asked, he'd start defending what he'd done maybe hours ago by saying that, after all, it was no worse than what Charlie was doing. I heard that argument over and over again, and I could never buy it. It was like claiming that just because a drunken driver hit your friend, you had a right to get in your car and aim it at some pedestrian. Of course, I was a foot soldier all this time. I was operating in a forward area and probably seeing the war at its ugliest. In daylight it was search-and-destroy missions, and at night it was setting ambushes for the enemy. I discovered it's not difficult to kill a human being—in combat it's as instinctive as ducking bullets. You never knew whose turn it was to die, and that isn't how it was in rear areas. The farther back you got, the closer you approached the way people lived in civilian life."
On November 16, 1966, the commanding officer of Eriksson's platoon, a Negro lieutenant, Harold Reilly (whose name, like every soldier's name in this account, has been changed), assigned him as one of five enlisted men who were to make up a reconnaissance patrol, its mission to comb a sector of the Central Highlands for signs of Vietcong activity. Testifying later in court, Lieutenant Reilly characterized the mission as "extremely dangerous," and said that to carry it out he had picked members of the best of the four squads in the platoon. Special care had been taken with the operation, he stated, since it had been conceived by the battalion command, a higher echelon than the company command, to which Reilly was ordinarily responsible. Explaining his choice of the patrol, Reilly testified, "These people, I felt, knew what they were doing, and a second reason was because the company commanding officer asked for good people." On the following afternoon, November 17th, the members of the newly formed patrol met in a corner of the platoon's headquarters area, near the village of My Tho, where, relaxed as they stood or sat on the ground, they listened to a briefing from their leader, who was seated on a low stool. He was Sergeant Tony Meserve, a slim, black-haired man of medium height who was twenty years old and came from a town in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. According to Eriksson, Meserve, who was assertive and confident, was both the patrol's youngest soldier and its most experienced one, being a volunteer of three years' standing who had fought in Vietnam for a year and had been decorated several times; he was due to go back to the United States in a month. The group's second-in-command was Ralph Clark, a corporal who came from a town near Philadelphia. He was twenty-two, a stringbean in physique, and blond, with eyes that were a pale, cold blue. Again according to Eriksson, Clark was given to quick movements and to seemingly abrupt decisions that reflected Meserve's thinking in an exaggerated form. The two other G.I.s in the combat team were a year younger than Eriksson, who was then twenty-two. They were cousins named Diaz—Rafael, known as Rafe, whose home was near Amarillo, Texas, and Manuel, who came from a town some distance north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eriksson remembers Rafe as a tall, swarthy, round-faced man with a disposition that was naturally sunny and amiable. As for Manuel, who was fair-skinned and stockier than his cousin, his manner was on the jumpy side. Like Clark, he was given to quick movements, but his behavior had nothing to do with embellishing Meserve's thinking. Manuel showed no initiative in that regard, Eriksson told me, his attitude toward authority being simple and automatic: he heeded it devoutly. In mild contrast, Rafe was capable of questioning authority, Eriksson said, but he generally wound up by going along with whoever seemed to be the leader—"just to keep from making trouble."
Returning to the patrol's briefing, Eriksson told me that Meserve was all business as he plunged into his talk. Echoing the instructions that a battalion officer had given him earlier, the Sergeant informed the four men of the duties that each was expected to carry out, of the chain of command in the field, and of radio-communication arrangements with the platoon command, and then, consulting the grid coördinates of a map he was holding, the Sergeant described a precise westerly route that the patrol was to follow. It was to take them, ultimately, to Hill 192—a height, in the Bong Son valley, that overlooked a ravine laced with a cave complex, which was suspected of serving as a Vietcong hideout. But caves weren't all that the five men would be looking for. Bunkers, trenches, trails that were not marked on maps, caches of enemy equipment—these, too, were to be reconnaissance objectives. Naturally, Meserve said, if the men could spot any Vietcong in the open, that would be all to the good, but the patrol's orders—and these had been spelled out in no uncertain terms by the battalion command—were to avoid any shooting matches with the enemy except in self-defense; as a so-called pony patrol, he said, they were out to collect "early-warning" information concerning enemy intentions.
Excerpted from Casualties of War by Daniel Lang. Copyright © 1969 The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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I must have been living in a box because this story was new to me. It is a story about a horrible event during a horrible time in a horrible place. Suffice it to say there are multiple casualties of war and one hero who will not be deterred.